Friday, 27 April 2018

And Then There Were (N-one) by Sarah Pinsker

I may have already mentioned that this is the first year I've bought a supporting membership so I can vote for the Hugos. This is a bit of a commitment for me, because although I do read a lot, I rarely read books close to the time they come out. Generally I get to them about two years later, so now I'm having to bump a bunch of last year's books to the top of my list.

Since the nominations were announced, I've read all the novelettes, all but one of the short stories, and this novella, the only one that was available online. I'm working on one novel and have another working its way through the library system to me. I feel like that's a good start in the two or three weeks since the nominations were announced.

"And Then There Were (N-one)" was a very enjoyable start to my Hugo Reading Trek 2018. It was the first work I read out, and I devoured it quite quickly. It took me an absurdly long time to get the (N-one) joke and then link it to Agatha Christie, but I got it early enough to know it was probably going to be a murder mystery, even before the murder happened.

In this story, a Sarah Pinsker who is not the Sarah Pinsker who is writing the story, is invited to a multiverse convention of Sarah Pinskers, hosted by the Sarah Pinsker who invented multiverse travel. It's on a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia, and the Sarahs arrive and leave from there directly, so as not to run amok on the world where multiverse travel began.

Initially, this is a story of paths not taken, of meeting hundreds of people who are you, in many important ways, of the wistfulness of seeing every forking path you never took walked by a different version of you.

But of course, a Sarah Pinsker turns up dead. The only Sarah Pinsker who is anything like an detective (an insurance investigator) is brought in by hotel staff to try to solve the murder. (Our Sarah Pinsker must be there somewhere, or at least, her Nebula is.)  She interviews Sarah Pinskers, finding out more about how her life is and isn't like theirs, including who else is married to the wife she wants to get to back to soon, who most of the other Sarahs met and married as well.

There's more melancholy to this than it might sound - so far, I think that as I'm describing it, it sounds like a slamming door farce, and there are funny bits, but it's more about what you did and didn't do with your life. Or, at any rate, what Sarah Pinsker did and didn't do.

When the solution to the mystery is revealed, it's fairly satisfying, but we are left with a cliffhanger, having to decide what, were we Sarah Pinsker, we would do about the murderer. I feel like that's less of a cliffhanger than you might want it to be - do you really want to let another version of your wife be married unawares to a murderer?

I haven't read any of the other novellas, but I enjoyed this a lot and expect it to rank well on my ballot. (Our universe's Sarah Pinsker's novelette, "Wind Will Rove," is without question going to be my top choice in that category.)

Monday, 23 April 2018

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

My mother-in-law got me a copy of The Obelisk Gate, bless her, prompted by my husband, who knew how much I'd loved The Fifth Season. I let it sit in limbo for a few months, not because I was worried about whether or not it would be good, but because I wasn't sure my heart could take it at any given moment. Finally, the news that the Hugo nominees were to be announced made me get on it, because I'm voting for the first time this year, and I was pretty darned sure The Stone Sky would be nominated. And I was not going to read that without having read this.

So, my heart prepared for further breaking, I picked it up. And I loved it almost as much, although it was less heart-breaking at times than skin-crawling. And by "at times," I mean "every Schaffa chapter."  Ohhh, the Schaffa chapters.

*shudder*

Creepy as all hell, and Jemisin would drop little bits in his train of thought, and my gorge would rise, because I'd read the first book not all that long ago, and I knew darned well exactly what the meaning behind the meaning was, and that it was horrific.

This book moves between whatever Schaffa has become (I've got a pretty good idea, but I'd find it hard to put in precise terms), Essun as she joins a new comm full of orogenes, located underground as the Season becomes more deadly, her daughter Nassun who, along with her murderous father, travel to a satellite Fulcrum, where her father hopes she can be cured of the disease of orogeny, and an unnamed narrator, who is gradually revealed to be Hoa, the small boy/stone eater Essun met last book.

If I just railed on Winterson for not understanding that science fiction and fantasy can be complex, this book would be one I'd hold up as Exhibit A for what this genre can be like, dammit. Nothing here is simple, and oh, so much of it hurts. Essun tries not to become part of the comm she is in, fearing endings like those that have claimed her sons previously. People react in ways expected and unpredictable, and are occasionally deadly.

Nassun, for quite a while, still loves the father who killed her brother, and hates the mother who was cruel in order to help her learn to hide - the intricate anguish of hurting children because it is what you think they need to survive is precise and devastating. Love is a thing for easier times, except it isn't, it survives even in harshness. And, easy and hard, it can be perverted or wielded in destructive ways, passing lessons of enslavement and oppression through generations that live in the interstices of every conversation.

But the world is built here as well, skilfully, as Essun learns from Alabaster what she can do with the obelisks, and why orogene children have had their talents bent towards the earth, instead of exploring the wider world of what no one remembers to call magic. Nassun learns some of the same lessons all by herself. Mother and daughter hurt those around them, sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose.

And the moon is coming back. It is coming back from where it was flung, and its return could mean a return to stability or an end to humanity, which might give the stone eaters a chance to become the dominant species on a surface too inhospitable to flesh and blood.

I'm caught up. The nominees have been announced. But I need a month or so before I'm recovered enough to read The Stone Sky.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson

I was looking to fill out a theme in my SF/F book club entitled "Even the Lands Have Changed," a mix of post-apocalyptic and climate change fiction. I needed one more book. I'd read the other four, knew they were good. I came up with a list of four more that sounded good, and let my group decide. The Stone Gods was on there, because I have loved Jeanette Winterson's books quite a lot, and seeing what she could do with dinosaurs and planned/unplanned extinction level events and science fiction sounded pretty exciting.

I was a little wary because of a review Ursula K. Le Guin had written of the book, but I put it forward anyway. It was the one we ended up picking, and I'm not sure how many people actually read it, but I have to say...yeah, I'm a little disappointed.  There are paragraphs as good any anything she's written, a handful of pages where her prose gathers itself and takes flight in visceral and challenging ways. But a few bits out of 200 pages is, frankly, not great. The stuff that's the strongest are the small sections about adoption, which she's explored with huge impact in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. It's obviously something that pushes Winterson's buttons, and so it pushes the readers, but the rest...there's not a lot of there, there.

I think Le Guin put her finger on it - Winterson falls prey to a trap that many literary writers fall into when they delve into science fiction - that of trying to reinvent the wheel. They're not commenting on science fiction as it has been written so far, they're commenting on what they think science fiction is. To someone who has read a lot of the genre, this book isn't cutting-edge and challenging. It's clunky. Building a new world from scratch and letting your audience in on it in ways that don't show is a talent, and there are a lot of others who have done it better.

I'm being harsher than I would be to an author I don't know, because I know Winterson is better than this, and so I am disappointed. I wanted her to take her writing style and themes and bring them to a genre I dearly love. Instead, I got science fiction on square wheels, and little of what makes Winterson so amazing.

First up is her dystopia. It's a clunky dystopia, full of a society that only reacts one way to the dystopia around them, instead of being full of nuance and complexity. (Yes, there are rebels who eat caviar and drink champagne and engage in same-sex activities, but they're not three-dimensional either.)  The explanation for how this world came to be what it is is cartoony, but the rest of the book doesn't camp it up as much as it would need to to make this work. This could work as a gonzo satire. Here, it is mired in commentary without much real insight.

I mean, media sexualizes young women, and some men seem to like it? Sure, easy target. All men? A little harder to sell. All women just go along with it? Even harder. Where's the queer subculture, for one?  I mean, Jeanette Winterson, of all people, where's the queer subculture? (The champagne swilling girls barely count here, but they are present.) Corporations run amok trying to run all aspects of life, again, easy target. You want a dystopia, go deeper, go harder, be daring, be more complex.

She's trying something here that is interesting but doesn't quite pan out, something almost David-Mitchell-esque, but without the sure hand for genre that he's got to bolster his hopping about. The book takes place in three different times, possibly on three different planets (maybe two?) There's a hint of everything repeating, ad nauseam, and that's where there is a glimmer of something more, but it's not quite developed enough. Intriguing, not fully explored.

There's also love, forbidden passion, this time between a woman and a robo sapiens (who is also a woman, if we can assign gender in quite that way, which maybe we can and maybe we can't but it wasn't explored). It repeats. It happens over.

Oh, I wanted to love this book. I did. But it's a disappointing entry in Winterson's works, and I was vastly underwhelmed.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

I picked up Witches of Lychford from a Tor.com promotion. I'm always happy to pick up a few things to read for free, as my meagre budget is about to be taken over by repaying student loans. This is a book that was unlikely to have passed my way otherwise, so I was happy to read it.

However, I can't say that this is one that I loved. It's not one I hated, either. It occupies that dread middle ground where I don't feel very strongly one way or another. It is perfectly competent, without being compelling. It's also very short, more a novella than anything else. And there's nothing wrong with novellas! But with less space, you kind of need a way in which the book packs a real punch.

This is the story of Lychford, a town in England that is apparently one of the linchpins keeping the world of humans and the world of supernatural beings, including the Fae, at bay. There are walls and protections that most people in the town have long forgotten about, except one old witch, Judith, who finds that most of her neighbours regard her as an amusing crank.  (And unfortunately, the one twist with her character was telegraphed a mile away. It's not a bad plot development for her character, but as with so many twists, I wish the author had introduced it sooner so we could explore what the implications are, instead of hinging it all on readers not guessing.)

Two younger women (probably in their thirties?), Amber and Lizzie, are now-feuding childhood friends. Lizzie is an Anglican minister struggling with a loss of faith after the death of her husband. Amber runs a new age shop, but tells herself that her own sojourn in Faerie was mental illness, nothing more.

Into this trio of women comes a large superstore, wanting to set up business in the town, which will probably wreck all local businesses, and will certainly break the remaining protections keeping worlds apart. This is deliberate, it turns out. The executive in charge may not be who he appears to be, and so not only is this a big evil corporation, it's a big evil corporation.

Judith is caught up in the campaign to stop the superstore, while Lizzie has to deal with a rather large wad of cash the executive left in her collection plate that just feels...wrong. Not many other supernatural things happen for a while - it's mostly about these women and their connection to others in the town. Then beglamoured red sigils start to show up on doors of those who oppose the store opening there, and we drive quickly towards a climax.

There's nothing at all wrong here, and if the description above sounds like something you'd like to read, you probably would. I felt like there was a bit too little meat to the story, but there was never a moment while I was reading it where I was irritated or bored. Which is something.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Planet of Exile by Ursula K. Le Guin

Planet of Exile is not an Ursula K. Le Guin book I'd heard of before. I came on to my radar through my NoveList project, where I take my top ten lists from previous years and look for "read-alikes" on the Novelist database, then read them and compare them to the books that apparently sparked the association.

This particular book is what the database spit out as a read-alike for The Fifth Season, which was without a doubt the best book I read last year. If you could give me another book about a world trembling on the end of existing, a society about to collapse, nature itself turning harsh and brutally hostile, I would be in. And that's what I got here, although the Seasons in Planet of Exile are not as erratic as those in The Fifth Season. They're merely very, very long. Like sixty earth-years long. I shudder at the idea of a sixty year winter.

We are not in the best-known section of Le Guin's oeuvre here, but that made it a little bit more delightful. I know most people won't have read this one, but although I don't think Planet of Exile is stunning, I would argue that it's well worth a read.

So, what is it about? The title refers to the plight of the "farborn," - humans, so far as we know, living on this planet with very very long seasons. Over six hundred earth-years ago, most of the farborn left during a war in their Galactic confederacy (I can't remember what word Le Guin uses precisely there, but that's close.)  In six hundred years, those who were left behind have had no contact with their former civilization. They don't know if it even exists, but they're pretty sure they're forgotten and will never be recovered. Over the six hundred years, they've lost some of their technologies, but not all of them, and are keenly aware of what they've lost.

Also on the planet are what the farborn call the hilfs, (Highly Intelligent Life Forms), and what the hilfs call people or humans. Vaguely humanoid, lighter-skinned than the farborn, although still not what present-day Western society would call "white." They're smaller, but generally physically compatible, although genetically, mixing has tended to lead to stillbirths.

And winter is coming, inexorably, and much faster than in George R.R. Martin. With the winter may come the Gaal, a ghostly white race who raids the edges of hilf society, causing inconvenience and localized trouble, but nothing organized. Until this winter. Under the rule of one unusual Gaal, they're stripping hilf cities and trying to occupy them, only to be driven out under the cruel grasp of winter as it descends, leaving nothing behind to sustain a society through sixty years of cold.

The farborn hear of this first, and they try to organize with the local hilfs to repel the invaders. The hilfs do not particularly trust the farborn, and even less when the farborn leader, after an incident wherein he was able to mindspeak a hilf woman, falls in love with her. (The farborn have some degree of telepathic communication, which they believe the hilf incapable of.)

This is a book about being far away from the culture in which you were raised, knowing you'll never get back to it. And the mistrust between those who have been there longer, although both have now been around for over half a millennium, our time. It's also about assumptions about capabilities, in both directions - what the farborn think the hilf can do, what the hilf presume about the farborn. And whether they can come together as the Gaal and winter come to try to survive for one more Season.

Again, it's not Le Guin's best. But I quite enjoyed this, and the suggestion of it as a read-alike to The Fifth Season was a good one. However, don't look for Jemisin's emotional gut-punch here - this is less intense.